Native Village
Youth and Education news
Volume 3   September 2011

Butterflies “treat” sick young
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Georgia: A new study suggests that Monarch butterflies “treat” their unborn offspring for a parasitic infection by laying the eggs on a plant that fights the illness.

Infected butterflies “prefer to lay their eggs on plants that will make their off­spring less sick, suggesting that monarchs have evolved the ability to medicate their off­spring,” said Jaap de Roode, an evolutionary biologist from Emory University.

Other studies show evidence that apes and other mammals "self-medicate," but the discovery in insects is new.

Monarch butterflies are known for their spectacular migrations from the U.S. to Mexico each year. They are also known for their striking colors which warn to birds and other predators that the butterfly may be poisonous.

In the caterpillar stage, monarchs eat milk­weed plants, some of which include high levels of cardenolides. While the chemicals don’t harm the caterpillars, it makes them toxic to predators, even after they emerge as adults.

De Roode says the Monarchs' parasite might be related to  Ophryocystis elektroscirrha.  These parasites invade young caterpillars, then stay through adulthood. They sap the butterflies' energy, shorten their lives, and sometimes kills them.

Infected females pass on the parasites through their eggs.  De Roode’s study reveals that infected females, unlike others, prefer laying their eggs on toxic milkweed.

Some scientists believe the practice may be more wide­spread than we realize.

“The results are also exciting because the behavior is trans generational,” said Thierry Lefevre, a post doctoral fellow in de Roode’s lab. “While the mother is expressing the behavior, only her off­spring benefit.”

The findings also may have implications for human health, said Mark Hunter from the University of Michigan.

 "Studying organisms engaged in self medication gives us a clue as to what compounds might be worth investigating for their potential as human medicines.


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